On this day in 1887, the great ragtime songwriter and pianist Eubie Blake was born. He was a successful musician throughout much of his life — but certainly not a star. Of particular note is his work in vaudeville as “Dixie Duo” with Noble Sissle. In early 1921, the two of them wrote a number of songs that would go on to form the basis of the musical revue, Shuffle Along. It was a huge hit, but it is also historically important because it was the first hit Broadway musical written by and about African Americans. It ran for 504 performances.
That figure needs a bit of context. Today, Broadway shows run forever — because they are test marketed crap for people who really don’t like theater. But Fiddler on the Roof was the first Broadway musical to run more than 3,000 performances. It closed in 1972. In the 1920s, Broadway plays didn’t run nearly that long. There are only two plays in the longest running Broadway plays (pretty much over 1,000 performances). And neither are musicals. So Suffle Along was hugely successful. And it was revived in 1933 and 1952.
I assume because of the success of the film The Sting, ragtime became very big in the 1970s. And as a result, Blake became a star. To some extent, it was simply because he was the only ragtime composer still alive. But he wasn’t just alive. He was still performing. It seemed he was everywhere in the 1970s — even on Saturday Night Live during its fourth season. Blake’s new found celebrity resulted in another extremely successful Broadway revue, Eubie! which ran for 439 performances.
Here he is in 1972, performing some of his best known songs in Berlin. The video doesn’t sync to the music, but it doesn’t matter. It’s the sound we care about:
Happy birthday Eubie Blake!